Identity Politics Is Poison

Earlier this week a deeply unpleasant video emerged, which showed a group of white nationalists praising Donald Trump whilst throwing nazi salutes.

It serves as an ugly reminder of just how awful racialised politics is. We live in an era in which identity politics is ascendant. It dominates public discourse. From both ends of the political spectrum we get victimhood narratives and identity obsession, with one side fuelling the other.

It is very important that we move beyond the divisive and damaging politics of polarization.

When you try to play the game of identity politics, no one wins. You just leave a toxic legacy for future generations to have to deal with.

For those of us who are opposed to political correctness, language policing and identity politics, we cannot – in the words of Christopher Hitchens – allow the extremist tail to wag the whole dog.

The solution to poisonous identity politics is not more identity politics.

Let’s hope, instead, for an outbreak of common sense.

In this week’s Imagine Athena podcast Candice Holdsworth spoke to Robin Gilbert-Jones, contributing editor to Imagine Athena, about the identity politics of the Regressive Left in the time of Donald Trump, and she also reflects on the identity politics of the far right.

 

 

Interview With Cathy Young

In the Imagine Athena podcast we interview the well-known American political journalist Cathy Young. We discuss antisemitic memes and how the political correctness, intolerance and identity politics of the regressive Left is giving rise to the new identity politics of the Right. We also talk about the US election and Young argues that now more than ever we need to stand up for free expression and individual liberty.

Enjoy.

 

 

Everything Imagine Athena Celebrates

A short video which explains who we are and everything we celebrate. As we say in our bio: “We exist to celebrate all the wonderful human virtues of imagination, achievement, intellect and beauty, that are so often denigrated in a culture suffused with stunted political ideologies.” We really do mean that.

Echo Chambers, Safe Spaces and Verbal “Violence”


Our latest video.

Candice Holdsworth and Robin Gilbert-Jones discuss how the lines between the digital and non-digital world have become steadily blurred over the years which has led to the creation of online echo chambers where people are not adequately exposed to ideas and opinions that challenge them. When they do encounter a critical voice it can be a terrible shock, and may even be perceived as “violence”.

Da Vinci, Polymaths and the Art-Science of Innovating the Future

Da Vinci Sketch

Redesigning art, science and mankind.

Leonardo Da Vinci had an impressive CV: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. The period in which he flourished, now known as “The Renaissance” (“The Rebirth”), was a time of extraordinary experimentation. Inspired by the intellectual curiosity of their ancient Greek and Roman forebears, Renaissance thinkers combined art and science in novel ways; the boundaries between the disciplines more fluid than they are today. It was from such voluminous expertise that the ideal of The Renaissance Man arose: an individual with many creative gifts who cultivated a wide range of scholarly interests.

This period of history is analogous to our own, as we enter an increasingly technology era,  the border between man and machine gradually disappearing.

The Divine Proportion

Da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man (1490)  has become an everlasting symbol of The Renaissance, of its dual commitment to artful wonder and scientific rigour. In Vitruvian Man’s creation, Da Vinci synthesized information from anatomy, architecture and physics into, what he believed, was an overarching theory of the universe.

 The Encyclopaedia Britannica described it as,

“Leonardo envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings and Vitruvian Man as a ‘cosmografia del minor mondo’ (cosmography of the microcosm). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe.”

 

Vitruvian Man (1490)

Da Vinci was exacting in his approach to aesthetics. He illustrated a book on mathematical proportion in art, De divina proportione (1509).

He  also kept detailed notebooks in which he methodically recorded his observations of the natural world. From his notebook:

“The lights which may illuminate opaque bodies are of 4 kinds. These are: diffused light as that of the atmosphere… And Direct, as that of the sun… The third is Reflected light; and there is a 4th which is that which passes through [translucent] bodies, as linen or paper or the like.”

Da Vinci applied this knowledge to art-making. His groundbreaking painting, The Lady with an Ermine (1483) contrasted varying degrees of light and shade to create depth of perspective in a way rarely achieved before.

His use of light in later works such as The Mona Lisa (1503-17) forever changed how artists used light in their paintings.

Left: Mona Lisa  (1503-17) Right: Lady with an Ermine (1483)

 

He also turned his meticulous hand to cartography, creating maps that were visually detailed and precise, which was unusual for the time. In 1502, his plan of the Italian town of Imola in Bologna was unparalleled in this regard.

Town Plan of Imola                                       Town Plan of Imola (1502)

Varying Octaves

It was this ability to successfully blend art and science that made Da Vinci the innovator he was.

A true man of The Renaissance, his tune was not monotonous. He played a range of chords during his lifetime, producing novel harmonies and unique melodies.

In the early 21st century, such types were harder to find. In 2009, Edward Carr writing for the magazine Intelligent Life argued that polymaths are “an endangered species”.  This was due in large part to universities worldwide favouring specialisation in one particular area, with generalists regarded as lacking commitment or insufficient depth of knowledge to really be considered an authority in their field.

But what about the blow this deals to innovation, Carr wonders?

“The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields. The work in the early 20th century that showed how nerves work and, later, how DNA is structured originally came from a marriage of physics and biology.”

Indeed, Francis Crick, one of the two men credited with uncovering the double helix structure of DNA, had begun his career in science as a physicist. By applying methods he had learned from physics, he was able to approach what was considered the “holy grail of biology” in a new and effective way. He and his research partner, James Watson, focused all their attention on working out the physical configuration – “the physics” – of DNA  before ascertaining its purpose. Later scientists were able to do exactly that, by building on the valuable work of Crick and Watson.

DNA Structure Quote

It is at the intersection of disciplines where creative catalysis happens.

 

Renaissance Woman

However, as the 21st century progresses and with the recent advent of transformative technologies like 3D printing, polymaths, like Neri Oxman, may have the opportunity to thrive once more.

IMG_1209

 

With a background in both medicine and architecture, MIT-based technologist Neri Oxman has pioneered new methods of designing and manufacturing construction materials.

     In a talk she gave at the annual PopTech conference in 2012, she described the philosophical approach to her work as:

“Ask not what science can do for design but what design can do for science.”

                                                                               ……..

 

 

Neri Oxman (2012)  (2012) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Informed by the way nature “designs”, Oxman uses 3D printing to create one of a kind artifacts, the material and anatomical structure of which mimics the biological entities they are modelled upon.

One of her works, Minotaur Head with Lamella,  exhibited at The Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2012, as part of the “Design and Mythology” collection is “a shock absorbing flexible helmet” that is designed to:

 

“…flex and deform in order to provide comfort and high levels of mechanical compliance. The head shield introduces variable thickness of the shell, informed by anatomical and physiological data derived from real human skull data. Medical scan data of a human head is selected from an open repository. Two sets of data are created and trimmed from the scan using medical imagining software simulating the hard tissue (skull) and the soft tissue (skin and muscle). Combined, these two data sets make up the bone-to-skin threshold informing helmet thickness and material composition according to its biological counterpart such that bony perturbations in the skull are shielded with soft lamellas designed as spatial sutures.” (MIT Media Lab)

 

Minoutaur Head with Lamella (2012) Source: Media Lab MIT/ Neri Oxman Projects

3D printing presents many collaborative opportunities for art and science.

From now onwards, we will experience far greater integration between technology and art than ever before: the emergence of art-science. This is already happening with enormous success in digital publishing and game design, where many modern day Da Vincis are to be found.

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See our list: Game Developers at the Philosophical Frontier
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Is Mankind the Next Great Design Project?

It is a significant historical period we are living through. New cultural paradigms are being forged as human lives become ever more entwined with technological processes.

The futurist and trend forecaster Ray Kurzweil has long predicted that in the 21st century humanity will “transcend” biology, by merging with technology. In his best-selling 2005 book The Singularity is Near: When Human Beings Transcend Biology he predicts that humans will be routinely augmenting their bodies and intelligence with technology by the year 2045.

Thought we have yet to develop technology that actually merges with our bodies, we are certainly becoming more reliant on it to mediate and organise our daily lives, with mobile devices serving as intellectual prosthetics. Complete physical integration does seem like the logical next step.

But is this more science fiction than fact? Writer and technology entrepreneur Jaron Lanier, has referred to the cultish nature of “The Singularity” concept, which is often treated with religious reverence by its adherents.

It is a vision of the future worth paying attention to though, as Lanier warns, “these ideas (have) tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.”

Indeed Ray Kurzweil has now been appointed as Director of Engineering at Google, giving him the opportunity to realise many of his prophecies.

Rebirth

As it was during The Renaissance, ours is a highly innovative age, a golden era for those interested in collapsing the historical barriers between art and science.

3D printing, Web 2.0 and mobile technology supply us with a glimpse of our digitally consolidated future.

We are experiencing reinvention as technology fuses with many aspects of everyday life.

The coupling of art and science in The Renaissance gave birth to Da Vinci, its archetypal man.

Our time may even see the human race reborn.

Featured Image Credit: Female Head by Leonardo Da Vinci Source: WikiPaintings

By The Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept

9/11: An event that ripped a hole in the fabric of our history. The time before it, seems idyllic.

Whilst pondering the historical significance of 9/11, we came across this rather beautiful a capella version of Babylon by the American singing trio, Mountain Man.

While some may see the choice of song here as a political point (‘Zion’ may seem a loaded term after all), it seems appropriate, now, more than ever, owing to its evocation of past and present, as we look back on a decade of war and take a moment to consider our place in history. So we ask you not to consider Zion in such narrow terms, but to apply it more broadly. As representative of a bright, shining past that will forever elude us. Zion is a lost innocence. This generation’s at least.

The twenty-first century has, for the most part, been defined by contradictions between what we thought about our human future and what we have found awaiting us. After a century of seemingly relentless war and the threat of nuclear annihilation, we seemed poised for a greater future, in the 1990s. The Soviet Union fell and thus appeared to bring an end to the age of great power competition; whereupon Francis Fukuyama declared the ’End of History’. New technology was causing the world to shrink and the march of globalisation swept across the world.

Then, at the dawn of the new human century, history came crashing down on us again, out of a clear September sky. It seems both tragic and fitting that we faced an enemy that wished to achieve a twisted parody of what some had thought we had achieved already: an end to history, a return to an imagined perfect epoch.

What has been achieved since then? Can the human race claim to be any more unified? The old Western order strains to hold itself together, fractured by economic chaos and endless war. The cradle of civilisation is racked by revolution and counter-revolution and our hatreds and misunderstandings seem more fervent than ever. We gaze, fearful but resigned, into the abyss.

The events of the last decade embody the state of timeless historical perpetuity to which Robin Jones refers in his piece about that blackest of Septembers. What is to become of us? The answers may surprise us. Our idea of history is more realistic now and more conducive to building a future from the fragments of our present. Our civilisation has not fallen; we have limped on in spite of our frailties. New discoveries have in many ways defined the 2010s, our artists and dreamers continue to cultivate great beauty and the human capacity for great love and empathy remains undiminished.

Francis Fukuyama was wrong, but so were the men who sought a return to the past. History cannot be brought to an end nor can it be revived. The goals of those men were impossible and thus their failure inevitable. There is no deterministic force called ‘history’ and the future is an untold story of which we are the narrators. Most of all there is no past, only the memory of what is lost.

ISIS and the West’s Conflicted Conscience

2014 certainly has been a year of mayhem and menace. In the Northern hemisphere, the summer laze has been rudely interrupted by violent geopolitics: passenger planes shot down; journalists savagely beheaded; and all the blood and tears spilled in Israel and Gaza.

These geographical schisms have their conceptual mirror in the fractured psyche of Western observers.

Though it would take the hardest of hearts not to be moved by the grisly images served up by the media on a daily basis, liberal Western democracies, though sympathetic to the suffering, are torn about exactly what to do about it.

Interventionism is not a popular position. Both the US and the UK declined to enter into the Syrian conflict, and the Iraq war is largely perceived nowadays as gross folly – in fact, many believe, it is to blame for the current chaos in Iraq. Conflict fatigue has set into societies that have seen a fledgling century tarred by endless foreign wars.

The UK has its own demons to face. A sense of unease that the problems of the Middle East are not quite at arms length. Some of the tribal battles of the Orient are being fought on a smaller scale at home too: terror, Islamism, and Anti-Semitism.

In these angsty times, television is a bouquet of jarring juxtapositions. Death and despair follows cheery advertisements for household goods and weekend getaways.

This is Western Liberalism’s deep dilemma: to burrow deeper into the comfort and complacency or challenge the horror?

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The fault lines run as follows:

Intervention

Regarding Iraq, David Cameron has firmly said that the UK “won’t put boots on the ground.” Humanitarian aid will be delivered, but the UK shies from any more of a military commitment than that. Barack Obama too has been reluctant to involve the US militarily, sparking intense debate about the proper role of US power. Though the murder of journalist, James Foley, has opened the possibility of broader US strikes against ISIS (so far limited to the protection of US diplomats and personnel and the exiled Yazidis).

Ideology

How much intolerance can be tolerated? Should liberal democracies actively confront fascism, whether at home or abroad?

Anti-Semitism

This is closely related to the previous point. Reports of growing Anti-Semitism in European democracies has forced countries like France and the UK to acknowledge the darker aspects of their national psyche.

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War, Caution

There is an interesting debate between Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens on The Spectator’s website. In it they discuss the relative merits/demerits of Western intervention in Iraq. Hitchens, speaking against military intervention, argues that though the West should provide humanitarian aid, it should exercise caution in committing to anything more.

The question isn’t whether the UK or US has the military capacity to intervene effectively, they of course do. The problem is what then? What will the long-term consequences of intervention be? Will it mean another protracted spell in Iraq managing the conflict? And, as Hitchens argues, what of the unforeseen consequences? ISIS being a terrifying example of this. Its manic sadism unleashed by the removal of Saddam Hussein, once a menacing bulwark against sectarianism in the region.

But what are the risks of not intervening? One must be careful not to overstate the capabilities of ISIS, but they certainly pose a threat to the future stability of the region (and possibly globally) with the creation of the caliphate.

Should the West care? (Does it have a choice not to?)

The US has found itself in a curious position since fighting broke out in Syria and Iraq. Its aloof stance has not spared it criticism. It is beginning to understand that it is unable to extricate itself completely. The plight of the Yazidis and Western captives of ISIS like James Foley has put pressure on the US and its allies to do what it can to alleviate their misery. Though the US is often criticised for playing global sheriff, it is a duty it is called to perform again and again.

These mixed messages have contributed to create a type of pained indecision in the West: feeling the moral imperative to do something, but burned by past failures and fear of future ones.

Muscular Liberalism

When discussing Western interventionism (humanitarian or otherwise), one always thinks of Peter and (the late) Christopher Hitchens, brothers, who, over the course of their journalistic careers have offered entirely opposing opinions on the subject. Clashing voices of the western conscience; one exhorting action, the other caution.

Christopher Hitchens, in contrast to his brother, was a very vocal, and controversial, supporter of the Irag War, alienating himself from many of his leftist peers.

By making “freedom” the ultimate goal of the war, Hitchens was able to make a moral case for invading Iraq.

He argued that war was justified in the service of freeing the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

Hitchens’s “muscular liberalism” was no doubt informed by his secular humanism and his universalist conception of human rights.

It also led him to denounce what he perceived to be attacks on liberal democracy by sectarian (often religious) interests.

He famously got into a spat on the BBC’s Question Time with Shirley Williams, after she criticized the British Honours Committee for awarding Salman Rushdie a knighthood for literature, after The Satanic Verses controversy, and, according to Williams, (Rushdie had) “offended Muslims everywhere”.

He also vigorously opposed the censorship of the Danish cartoon which depicted the prophet Mohammed, encouraging others, in his Slate column, to do so as well.

Not a dollar of Wahhabi money should be allowed to be spent on opening madrasahs in this country, or in distributing fundamentalist revisions of the Quran in our prison system. Not until, at the very least, churches and synagogues and free-thought libraries are permitted in every country whose ambassador has bullied the Danes. If we have to accept this sickly babble about “respect,” we must at least demand that it is fully reciprocal.”

A Hitchens-inspired liberal democracy positively asserts itself. It is not a passive system which allows for any sort of behaviour – intolerant or undemocratic – it actively opposes such.

Blame the Jews

Is English liberal democracy able to display such moral fortitude? Both Douglas Murray in The Spectator and Brendan O’ Neill in The Telegraph argue not.

O’ Neill writes:

Were you outraged by a Sainsbury’s store’s decision over the weekend to hide away its kosher foods in an attempt to placate anti-Israel protesters? You should have been. For this incident, though seemingly a one-off, speaks to a profound problem in Europe today – the respectable classes’ acquiescence to anti-Semitism; their willingness to accept anti-Semitic sentiment as a fact of life and to shrug it off or, worse, kowtow to it.”

And Murray for The Spectator:

There is a whiff of Weimar in the air in Britain. Barely a week now passes without some further denigration caused by anti-Semitic, sorry, pro-Palestine demonstrators targeting businesses run by Jews/stores selling products produced by the Jewish state. You know, like Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, Starbucks and so on. Most of this fairly random targeting of whatever business sounds a bit Jewish goes unnoticed.”

Rising Anti-Semitism in European countries like France and the UK is a true test of how committed these liberal democracies are to defending their values.

Fear of causing offense, anger at Israel and a type of conspiratorial cynicism have caused enormous moral confusion in the West.  Even surrender.

 Robin Gilbert-Jones writes:

The Art of Blowback Tautology

Liberal Westerners often find it difficult, socially awkward or politically incorrect to assert cultural ethical values and, frustratingly, this can often lead to a kind of sloppy relativism for fear of being seen as culturally imperialistic. While this impulse stems from an ostensibly well-meaning and modest premise it can be highly destructive, leading ultimately to an abandonment of principles. Some take it one step further however and assert that, no, not all systems are equivalent, but if they are anti-Western they are at least on the right track.

This could be observed during the initial stages of the crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea when Vladimir Putin’s ghoulish visage was splashed over every paper left, right and centre (literally) and people with supposedly liberal credentials were standing up for him as if he represented some kind of brave, indefatigable underdog. This wave of solidarity tended to follow American criticism of Russian actions whereupon cries of “Western hypocrisy” (mainly from Westerners themselves) flooded social media channels. Let us be clear, the Russian Federation is not some kind of champion of the underdog. Modern Russia has managed to combine the most pernicious features of Tsarist elitism, Stalinist politburo mentality, vulture capitalism, oligarchical excess and Russian Orthodox fascism (with its attendant homophobic and Anti-Semitist impulses). Of course all of this sends a fantastic message on the world stage. All Russia has to do is throw its weight around and wait for a chorus of Western liberals turn the argument against their own culture.

And this is not the first time we are seeing the destructive repercussions of Western self-loathing. It echoes the arguments of those who resisted US intervention in Darfur on the basis that they had done a lot of unpleasant things in Central America, allowing a massively comprehensive genocide to take place unabated, or those who talk about murderous Islamic extremists as if they represent some kind of oppressed civil rights movement. These cases alone should serve as an example of the potential danger of Western moral surrender.

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The urge to “do something” is strong, but the willingness to execute on it is weak. Liberal western democracy is currently at a point in its history where it is facing more challenges to its primacy since the height of the Cold War, but is extremely hesitant to defend it. The confident liberal swagger so characteristic of the twentieth century has been replaced with circumspection and conservatism in the twenty-first. “The high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

  Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 1971)

Featured Image Credit: Flickr